The Political Science of Conservation Biology

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” W. B. Yeats, The Second Coming

As the government has exerted more and more influence over scientific research, the role of politics in science has grown larger and larger. And as government-driven environmental spending creates more and more environmental scientists, they then promote attention to environmental causes. As one writer noted,

Over the coming decades, the waxing class of salmon recovery experts now in control of salmon spending may lose prestige, as their programs fail to return more salmon to the rivers of the Pacific Northwest (unless they succeed in claiming credit for improving climatic conditions). Right now, however, their influence continues to rise, premised on the Hoax that we have yet to begin the struggle to save salmon.

It is not just the number of scientists that has changed, but their nature as well. In the field of biology, a new "science", "conservation biology", has been created. Conservation biology mingles old-fashioned biological science with New Age mysticism. In many respects, it is not so much science as religion.

It takes as a postulate—an assumption never to be questioned—the superiority of "natural" conditions, which are usually imagined to be the conditions that prevailed just before some identifiable human development intruded on the environment. Unlike traditional scientists, conservation biologists are all highly political, in the sense that their willingness to embrace new scientific truth is subordinate to the larger political goals of reducing human influence on the environment.

Conservation biologists are also active in legal and political processes, where their recommendations receive great weight because of their status as "scientists". Organizations like the "Society for Conservation Biology" and "The American Institute of Biological Sciences" have actually intervened in lawsuits to challenge forest management.10 The same "scientists" advise policymakers on "science" and politicians on how to rewrite the Endangered Species Act.11

One law review article promoting the new "science" of "conservation biology" explained:

"A distinguishing feature of conservation biology is that it is mission oriented. Underlying any mission is a set of values. Philosophers of science now recognize that no science is value free, despite all we were taught in school about the strict objectivity of the scientific method. Conservation biology is more value-laden than most sciences because it is not concerned with knowledge for its own sake but rather is directed toward particular goals. Maintaining biodiversity is an unquestioned goal of conservation biologists."12

Conservation biologists "view species extinction and loss as a crisis of major proportions that requires a drastic shift in our governing policies".13 This crisis mentality drives conservation biologists to an anti-development political agenda that seems extreme to those who do not share their perception of imminent crisis. From the crisis perspective, the "unquestioned ends" of "biodiversity" justify the means of ignoring scientific evidence. To conservation biologists, objectivity is a vice if it stands in the way of accomplishing the "mission".

Many have an underlying philosophy, exemplified by the Norwegian Arne Naess, that “nature had rights of its own, which were primary. Rivers had a right to be rivers, salmon had a right to be salmon, trees had a right to be trees, just as they were, without human interference”.14 Since no one can communicate with trees or salmon, giving them rights really means giving additional political power to those who purport to speak for the trees or salmon.

Conservation biologists have taken the leading public role as salmon advocates in the Northwest. Joseph Cone chronicled their organization in his 1995 book A Common Fate. A small group of individuals, working loosely together, brought Endangered Species Act listings to the Pacific Northwest and popularized the cause of salmon recovery. Gordon Reeves led the politicization of the Oregon chapter of the American Fisheries Society. Jim Lichatowich quit the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife because it was not friendly to his world view of an industrial economy at war with a “natural” economy, and has worked tirelessly to popularize his views. Kai Lee, a professor of “environmental studies and political science”, who served as Washington’s member on the Northwest Power Planning Council, motivated the Council’s staff, particularly Willa Nehlsen, to adopt the conservation biology viewpoint.15

By 1990, the Oregon Chapter of the American Fisheries Society focused on such questions as “the realistic prospects for sustainable resource use in a consumption-oriented society” and “prospects for natural-resource sustainability as long as local, national and global population growth went unchecked”.16 When fisheries scientists decide to worry about these questions instead of disease vectors for Ceratomyxa shasta, evolutionary changes in salmon species, or statistical techniques for counting the number of fish harvested, we all suffer. Everyone wants to be a policymaker, and no one wants to do the hard scientific work that give us the information we need to make intelligent policy choices.

A small and closely-knit group of conservation biologists who are mostly state and tribal bureaucrats in Portland, Oregon17 have come to exercise enormous influence over government salmon policy. Their unquestioned postulate is that salmon can be recovered to historic levels by manipulating river flows and drawing down reservoir levels. With the assistance of the Clinton/Gore White House Office of Environmental Policy, and a friendly federal court in Portland, they have effectively overruled the federal fish biologists since 1992, and launched a program that quickly expanded to cost more than $500 million a year ($200 million being lost revenues to the Bonneville Power Administration).

These individuals, including the husband-and-wife team of Doug and Michelle DeHart, Howard Schaller, Margret Filardo, and Bob Heineth, deserve credit for a single-minded focus on and dedication to their particular vision of salmon recovery. Unfortunately, they seem to have all lost the capacity to consider objectively the scientific evidence concerning the effects of dams on salmon. Others have a harsher view, calling them “fish terrorists”, “blinded by their hatred for the power system”, who “believe anything that destroys megawatts has to help salmon”.18

Real scientists would take a serious interest in considering the data set forth in these pages. The Portland group has taken the opposite approach, attempting to stop the collection of that data, and to harm the careers of those who collect it. They have even reached up to Seattle to try and shut down the thesis projects of fishery students at the University of Washington whose research might undermine their dogma.

Another particularly influential group of conservation biologists, the Northwest Power Planning Council's Independent Scientific Group, issued a widely-heralded report entitled Return to the River on September 18, 1996. The Group asserts that the virtue of the report is not to provide new scientific information to policymakers. Rather, the Group proclaims that it has provided a "conceptual foundation", meaning a "set of scientific principles and assumptions"—"the filter through which information is viewed and interpreted".19

Their "filter" amounts to little more than rose-colored glasses through which they look at "back to nature" solutions for salmon recovery. Because higher spring flows were present before dams, many conservation biologists simply filter out the evidence that increasing spring flows with flow augmentation doesn't help recover salmon. But real scientists don't filter out data. They revise their theories to be consistent with the data. Data are real. Theories may not be.

For the most part, the public and the media cannot tell the difference between real scientists and those who apply the filter of conservation biology; the end result is that science itself is slowly corroded.

Conservation biologists may be well-intentioned, and profess to be trying to use the scientific process, but their objectivity is poisoned by an overwhelming anti-development bias. This bias is held by many who are frankly antiscientific, and opposed to scientific and industrial progress. The rise of such modern-day Luddites recently caused some 2,600 scientists, including 72 Nobel Prize winners, to issue the Heidelberg Appeal, expressing concern about

“the emergence of an irrational ideology opposed to scientific and industrial process. . . . We contend that a Natural State, idealized by movements with a tendency to look toward the past, does not exist and probably has not existed since man’s first appearance in the biosphere. . . . The greatest evils that stalk our Earth are ignorance and oppression, not technology and industry.”20

Ignorance about what has caused salmon decline and what we can do about it stalks the Pacific Northwest. So too does oppression of citizens who try and tell the truth about it.

9 J. Pinkerton, “Enviromanticism: The Poetry of Nature as a Political Force”, Foreign Affairs, May/June 1997, at 5.

10 See, e.g., Sierra Club v. Marita, 46 F.3d 606 (7th Cir 1995).

11 See, e.g., Open Letter to Sen. Chafee and Cong. Saxton, July 23, 1996 (attacking proposed "no surprises" policy for landowners) (

12 R. Noss, "Some Principles of Conservation Biology as They Apply to Environmental Law", 69 Chicago-Kent L. Rev. 893, 895 (1994).

13 R. Keiter, "Conservation Biology and the Law: Assessing the Challenges Ahead", 69 Chicago-Kent L. Rev. 911 (1994).

14 J. Cone, A Common Fate 24.

15 See generally J. Cone, A Common Fate 25-28, 34-38.

16 Id. at 41.

17 While the group is centered in Portland, there are also members in other states, including Ed Bowles and Steve Pettit of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, and James Nielsen and Olaf Langesson of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

18 These quotes appear in B. Harden, A River Lost (at p. 214), attributed to consultant and utility lobbyist Al Wright.

19 ISG, Return to the River xv.

20 Quoted in G. Easterbrook, A Moment on the Earth 63.

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